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SS Athenia

By: Daniel H. Jones

The Donaldson line (187~1966) could trace it's origins back to 1855 when the two founders, John and William F. Donaldson, formed their company and two years later acquired their first ship. Early operations were sailing packets, offering service from the Clyde to South America. The South American trade declined and many of their ships were chartered to other operators. In 1878 the company advertised the building of a new line of steamers and the intention of stating a Canadian service, Glasgow to Quebec and Montreal. This marks the beginning of the Donaldson Line steamers and the service for which they were best known. Over the years the company had several names, Donald Brothers (1855), Donaldson Line Limited (1913), Anchor-Donaldson (1916), Donaldson Atlantic Line Limited (1935), and last, Donaldson Line Limited again. None of their ships could be said to be famous. They were like many others, sturdy, well built ships, doing a job. The ATHENIA and her sister LETITIA, were built by Fairfields, Glasgow, in 1923-24, for the Canadian emigrant trade offering accommodations for 516 cabin class and approximately 1000 third class. The level of comfort was considered to be excellent by the shipping press of the day. Both ships were quite successful in this trade and were well regarded. In 1933 the accommodation arrangements were redesigned reflecting a lessening of emigration and an increase in the tourist trade. The ATHENIA and her sister were. refitted with additional passenger capacity and the interior arrangement was completely redone. Now they carried 314 cabin, 310 tourist and 928 third class passengers. Routine ports of call were, Glasgow, Liverpool, Quebec, Montreal, and Halifax. During the winter months they were employed on extensive warm water cruises. It is safe to say that before 1939 few members of the general public had ever heard of either ship. All that would change on September 3, 1939.

At daybreak, on September 1, 1939, German armies crossed the border into Poland. Overhead, aircraft of the Luftwaffe roared towards their targets, introducing a new type of warfare. Notes of protest were followed by ultimatums from both Britain and France. With no response from Germany within the allotted time, by noon on September 3, 1939, Britain was at war. At 9 pm on the same day came the first casualties at sea ATHENIA was outward bound from Liverpool to Montreal with 1,103 passengers ahoard. About 200 miles west of the Hebrides she was torpedoed without warning. This was in violation of international agreements that unarmed passenger vessels were not to be molested. The German government denied any role in the attack. This initial response was sincere for they did not learn the details until the submarine had returned to base.

U-Boat commanders were under strict orders to observe the terms of the Hague Convention that forbade attacks on merchant ships withoutwarning. After nightfall on September third, the patrolling U-30 spotted the ATHENIA outbound with no lights and running a zigzag course. The captain of the U-Boat, Oberleutnant Lemp, concluded that the ship was either a troop ship or an armed merchant cruiser. Observing none of the international protocols, he proceeded to attack the ship. The death toll was 112, of whom 28 were Americans.

When the first British reports were received the German government did not believe them. The Propaganda Ministry asked if the Kriegsmarine was responsible and was told by naval authorities that no U-Boats were in the area. On September 7, Grand Admiral Raeder stated that all U-Boats had been contacted and none was responsible for the disaster. This was also conveyed to the American ambassador. This statement was not entirely true, for several boats had not reported in. In fact, the Germans would not learn the facts until September 27 when the U-30 returned to Kiel Harbor. In the meantime, even if they suspected the truth, the Germans were anxious to avoid a repetition of the problems of World War I when the sinking of the LUSITANIA had turned world opinion against them and helped bring America into the war. Once the truth was known, a cover up began that would last until the end of the war. The logs of U-30 were altered and officers and crew were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to mention the incident. Publicly the German government continued to deny responsibility for the attack. Hitler was furious about the mistake and imposed severe restrictions on all U-Boat operations. Adrniral Doenitz, commander of the U-Boat arm, was to be frustrated by these restrictions for many months. Only when the tactical restrictions were relaxed could the U-Boats use their weapons effectively.

However, the damage was done. No amount of official denials could convince the outside world that the loss of ATHENIA~ was anything but a return to "German Barbarism", as the unrestricted submarine warfare of the First World War was termed. Of course, such pious moral limitations on submarine operations were not logical. For a submarine, stealth is its most effective weapon. The Hague Convention agreements requiring submarines to surface and warn surface vessels, allowing crews to launch boats before attacking, were silly and unrealistic. The US Navy tacitly recognized this, as it immediately initiated unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan after December 7, 1941.

The ATHNIA was in size, appearance, and function, similar to scores of single funnel cargo liners of the period. The political sensitivity of her loss, and the controversy that it generated, is the basis of her fame. Some writers have called her the "LUSITANIA" of WWII and the parallels are obvious. Her loss had consequences but of an entirely different nature than those of the LUSITANIA sinking. The loss of the ATHENIA on the first day of the war was instrumental in hardening some public opinion in America against the German government, but not to the extent of the LUSITANIA sinking in WWI. In spite of the best efforts of the British propaganda effort to stir the storm, isolationism was still a very strong force in American politics and the loss of the ATHENIA did not have enough emotional impact to overcome the desire to stay out of the "European War". Hitler was most anxious to avoid antagonizing the Americans and initially would not relent on his restrictions and allow Doenitz a free hand with his submarine operations. Perhaps the greatest effect of the ATHENIA sinking was to delay the unrestricted use of U-Boats against merchant shipping.

ATHENIA's sister ship, LETITIA, served first as an armed merchant cruiser escorting convoys across the Atlantic. After the loss of several of these converted liners it became obvious that a large passenger ship, no matter how fast or well armed, was simply too vulnerable to damage and was no substitute for a warship. The survivors, including LETITIA, were converted back to transports. In 1944, LETITIA was transferred to the Canadians for use as a hospital ship in which capacity she served for the remainder of the war. She was then purchased by the British government in 1946, renamed EMPIRE BRENT, and was employed as a troopship, under the management of the Donaldson Line. In 1951 the ship was renamed again to CAPTAIN COOK and employed as a emigrant ship to Australia She was scrapped in 1960.

1/700 Scale Drawings

SS Athenia

This article originally appeared in Plastic Ship Modeler 1995/3 and is reprinted here with the permission of the author and editor.

Copyright © SMML 2003